Coronavirus treatments: What we know after 6 months – Business Insider
Since the novel coronavirus emerged in January, hundreds of clinical trials have launched to test treatment options.
Most trials are ongoing or have failed. But the few that have succeeded have given frontline doctors valuable tools to speed up recoveries from COVID-19 and prevent deaths.
From the surprise hit dexamethasone to understanding more about the virus and its symptoms, here are the four biggest research breakthroughs from the past six months on how to treat coronavirus patients.
The coronavirus pandemic has proved it is here to stay.
In the past month, the US has notched about 800,000 new cases and 20,000 deaths as many states have seen spikes in infections. More than 10 million people across the world have been infected, accounting for more than 500,000 deaths since the start of the outbreak, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The enticing narrative around the drug led people to jump to conclusions. While big drugmakers were revving up their research engines in a long slog to create a — likely expensive — new drug, hydroxychloroquine stood in stark contrast. The medication is a cheap, widely available pill first approved in the 1950s to treat malaria. If it worked, it would have been a remarkably simple and inexpensive solution to a worldwide pandemic.
But there was no high-quality clinical data to support its efficacy. A slew of poorly designed trials produced results that became a type of Rorschach test. Supporters of the drug could glean data they felt showed obvious benefit or promise, while skeptics often emphasized grave safety risks, which could be exaggerated to make it seem like a poisonous pill.
Both sides were far more dramatic than the science. A pair of high-quality studies in June showed the antimalarial pills provided no benefit for hospitalized patients and that they weren’t a preventive treatment for people exposed to the virus. The studies also didn’t find any particularly troubling safety risks either. The drug simply didn’t do much against the coronavirus.
“This is not a treatment for COVID-19,” Martin Landray, the UK study’s lead researcher said on June 5. “It doesn’t work.”
The findings spurred several other trials to stop testing the drug, including studies run by the US National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, and the Swiss pharma giant Novartis. US regulators also yanked its emergency-use authorization to treat COVID-19. A few studies are still testing the pills as a preventive treatment for people not yet exposed to the virus, but June gave a major blow to the notion of hydroxychloroquine as a game changer.
Dexamethasone reduced the rate of death by about one-third in COVID-19 patients on ventilators and by one-fifth for those needing oxygen. The finding comes from more than 6,000 hospitalized patients in the UK’s Recovery study, with 2,104 receiving dexamethasone and 4,321 patients randomized to standard care.
3. Treating the virus is different from treating the symptoms, and both are important when caring for COVID-19 patients.
By the time a drug like dexamethasone is used, it’s working to confront a runaway immune response, rather than fight the viral infection itself. It builds off a better understanding researchers and doctors are getting of COVID-19 as a disease.
There are two distinct stages of the disease that have major implications for treating patients. In the early stage, doctors want to boost the immune response using virus-fighting proteins called antibodies along with T-cells that can neutralize the coronavirus. Or they can use antiviral drugs, which seek to stop viruses from invading and hijacking healthy cells to copy themselves.
4. There haven’t been any major mutations. That bodes well for crafting an effective vaccine.
A vaccine that can protect healthy people from infection is the best way to confront infectious diseases.
More than a dozen coronavirus vaccine candidates have started clinical testing in 2020, and by the end of the year, there should be more than 30 experimental vaccines in human trials, according to a Business Insider review.
While the experimental vaccines have been built with a variety of different technologies, they all have the same goal — prepare the body’s immune system to deal with the coronavirus. Vaccines basically show human cells a part of the virus. If the vaccine works, the body will start pumping out antibodies designed to fight that virus and protect against infection.
The first few months of research have found the virus mutating, but not in any way that’s particularly alarming. Viruses mutate all the time as part of their typical life cycle. Nearly all the coronavirus vaccine programs are focused on the virus’ spike protein, and epidemiologists and vaccine experts have yet to identify any concerning changes for this crucial protein.
Optimism has been rising around vaccines. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, has said he believes having a vaccine is a matter of “when and not if.”